Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a postmodern, self-aware, meta fiction masterpiece. It’s a philosophical game about relationships: between the narrator and the reader, between life and death, between the literary device and the artifice of storytelling technique.
The language is particularly brilliant (it appears to have come through really well in the English translation) — but it needs to be in order to charm the reader and maintain our attention in what is an otherwise challenging and difficult story. The second person viewpoint significantly contributes to the intimate ‘fireside chat’ tone.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.
Using fiction as a kind of intellectual puzzle is always a delicate balance between playfulness and indulgence. But here, the clever choice of the second person viewpoint helps to involve the reader in Calvino’s artful game.
Bright Lights, Big City is another great example of how to use the second person viewpoint with its comical tone from a world-weary protagonist.
John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise it Seems (1982) also opens by directly addressing the reader in an intimate, self-aware way using the second person viewpoint (although it morphs into a third person perspective):
This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night.
The second person viewpoint is often used to provide an intermediary voice between the character and the reader/audience, giving the author a space to comment. Rod Serling used this technique to introduce the old Twilight Zone episodes by speaking directly into the camera and taking to ‘you’, the viewers at home. These introductions were designed to connect the viewer directly to the story.
The second person viewpoint (you) is not that popular in fiction, but it does have advantages. It feels almost as intimate as the first person (I) and yet at the same time it is coming from outside of the character (from the author/narrator/or even a character’s subconscious) so it feels more distanced. In that respect it shares some qualities with the third person viewpoint (he/she).
It’s also a good way to write about unpleasant or privileged characters because it provides a way for the reader to empathise with them. The Neo Noir film Blast of Silence (1961) used it very effectively in the voice-over narration to describe the thoughts of a ruthless hit man.
While the second person viewpoint might put off some readers (as does the present tense) you very quickly adjust to it as a reader and it becomes just another literary tag.